by D.W. Lundberg

Monday, October 21, 2013


Our continuing foray into Disney's fifty official Animated Classics. As always, don't hesitate to share your thoughts/memories/complaints in the comments section below. Links to previous entries are also included below.

Title: The Princess And The Frog (2009; based on the novel The Frog Princess by E. D. Baker, and "The Frog Prince" by the Brothers Grimm)

The Plot: In 1920s New Orleans, a waitress who dreams of opening a restaurant and a pampered, arrogant prince are magically transformed into frogs by a voodoo doctor's curse.

The Songs: "Down In New Orleans," "Almost There," "Friends On The Other Side," "When We're Human," "Gonna Take You There," "Ma Belle Evangeline," "Dig A Little Deeper," "Never Knew I Needed" (performed by Ne-Yo)

A Little History: Walt Disney's first hand-drawn animated feature since Home On The Range (2004). Following their acquisition of Pixar in May 2006, Ed Catmull and John Lasseter (president and chief creative officer at Disney Animation Studios) decided to reinstate the company's "cel" animation division. Lasseter hired back directors John Musker and Ron Clements (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid) and also many of the top animators laid off after Range's completion. Since most Disney fairy tales were based in European countries, Musker and Clements set their story in 1920s New Orleans instead - Lasseter's favorite city. The directors then took a ten-day trip to Louisiana to soak in the sights and sounds before writing their screenplay. Character designs for Princess And The Frog were inspired by Lady And The Tramp - "the pinnacle of Disney's style" as far as the filmmakers were concerned - while the bayou/forest backgrounds were inspired by Bambi. Toon Boom Animation's Harmony software was used during digital production on the film, as Disney's CAPS system had become obsolete; this process allowed animators to adjust the colors of their backgrounds with the push of a button (rather than having to repaint them from scratch) if the characters contrasted too much in the foreground. (Tiana's "Almost There" fantasy sequence, based on the artwork of Aaron Douglas, is the only animation not to be rendered using Toon Boom Harmony. The animators' drawings were scanned into Photoshop and then enhanced using Adobe After Effects.) The frog designs for Tiana and Prince Naveen had to be anthropomorphized (i.e., made less "frog-like") to make them more appealing to audiences (see also Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio). African-American critics objected to the film's title (originally The Frog Princess) and its depiction of racial stereotypes (Tiana was originally named "Maddy" and worked as a chambermaid). As a result, the title was changed and Oprah Winfrey was brought on board as technical consultant (Winfrey also voices Tiana's mother, Eudora). Actress Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls) and singer Alicia Keys were considered for the role of Tiana, before Anika Noni Rose was cast. Rose helped influence much of her character's personality and design; supervising animator Mark Henn even made the character left-handed, as Rose is in real life. This is the first Animated Disney Classic since Beauty And The Beast in which all of the actors provide their own singing voices. Composer Randy Newman was hired to write the songs for the film, having previously worked for Lasseter on Toy Story and Cars. The script makes several references to the plays of Tennessee Williams, including Cat On A Hot Tin Roof ("Big Daddy") and A Streetcar Named Desire ("Stella!"). The marketing push for The Princess And The Frog began in autumn 2009, with costumes, Tiana Barbie dolls, and hair- care products disappearing from websites and store shelves months before its U.S. premiere. The film opened in New York and Los Angeles on November 25th and in wide release on December 11th. It grossed $104,400,899 in the U.S. and another $162,644,866 worldwide - a modest hit by Disney standards, but a hit nonetheless. The songs "Almost There" and "Down In New Orleans" were nominated for Best Original Song at the 82nd Academy Awards, but lost to "The Weary Kind" from Crazy Heart.

How It Broke New Ground: The first Disney film to feature an African-American princess as its star. Also the first Animated Classic to use Toon Boom Harmony, a retail software solution using Wacom Cintiq pressure-sensitive tablet displays.

How It Holds Up Today: Disney makes a welcome return to 2D animation, and to the storytelling traditions and Broadway musical stylings that defined so much of their 90s Renaissance. That its African-American cast of characters made headlines for the color of their skin is utterly beside the point; yes, the movie may sidestep the class and social struggles of the Prohibition-era South (an early dissolve between the affluent mansions of the rich and ramshackle "slums" of the poor is all you get for subtext), but is that really what we want from our Disney musicals? After all, Tiana isn't the first woman of color to receive the royal Princess treatment (Mulan and Pocahontas got there first, remember?), so why should we expect any different? Directors John Musker and Ron Clements set out to make an American-based fairy tale all their own, and its southern-fried setting is part and parcel with the world they wanted to create. The same goes for Randy Newman's eclectic song score, each number with its own distinct N'awlins flavor, from Zydeco ("Gonna Take You There") to Gospel Funk ("Dig A Little Deeper") to Big Band Caribbean Swing ("Friends On The Other Side"). (Nee-Yo's generic pop ditty "Never Knew I Needed," meanwhile, is mercifully relegated to the closing credits.) Back on the subject of Tiana for a moment, she's as resilient and hardworking as they come (even in frog form) and a role model for races the world over. That she also succumbs to the power of love is hardly breaking any ground. Just a friendly reminder that the best stories don't always require fancy computer graphics to drive the point home.

Grade: B+


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